Chapter XVII.
Northern Pacific Explorations.

The first route proposed for the Northern Pacific Railroad was to run from Duluth to St. Cloud and from thence to Breckenridge, as a feasible route was known to exists along that course, whereas most people had their doubts as to the practicability of building a railroad farther north. The first exploring expedition was fitted out in June, 1869, under the direction and management of George A. Bracket, of Minneapolis. Their first camp was pitched at Small Lake, a little west of St. Cloud on the 9th day of July, 1869.

Accompanying the expedition was J. Gregory Smith, at that time governor of Vermont, and also president of the Northern Pacific Railroad Company, Eugene M. Wilson, of Minneapolis, member of Congress from the third Minnesota district, Senator William Windom, the Rev. Dr. Lord of Chicago, Charles Carlton Coffin, correspondent of the Boston Journal, and among several others the financial agent of Jay Cook, a man whose name was Holmes.

Pierre Bottineau, a Red River half-breed, and one of the most noted frontiersmen of the Northwest, was the guide of the party, and John O. French, now of Detroit Township, was his assistant.

The party consisted of about seventy men, fifty-five of whom were teamsters; twenty-five light wagons and buggies, and about thirty heavy wagons, loaded with provisions, baggage and general camping outfit. As they left St. Cloud, they made a very imposing procession, stretching out along the road for nearly half a mile in extent. They moved by easy stages, following the old Alexandria and Red River road, and in the course of about a week reached Fort Abercrombie, a frontier post occupied by United States troops. The party here divided, about one-half of them remaining behind to explore the Red River Valley and the country adjacent thereto in a direction north from Ft. Abercrombie.

The other half of the expedition now procured the services of a squad of twenty-five or thirty soldiers from Ft. Abercrombie, under the command of a lieutenant to serve as an escort, and then, under the leadership of Bottineau and French, proceeded to explore the country across the Dakota plains to the Missouri River. They crossed the Maple, Sheyenne and James Rivers, coming to the Missouri some distance north of where Bismarck now stands.

At their camp near the James River they were fired upon, in the night, by a party of Sioux Indians and skirmishing with the pickets was quite lively for a couple of hours, and was only brought to a close by the dawning of day. One soldier was slightly wounded.

After examining the approaches to the Missouri, and ascertaining the feasibility of a crossing, the party started back by a new route a little north of their outward trail, and about the 15th of August reached the Red River a little north of where Fargo now stands. Here they met the party which they had left at Ft. Abercrombie a few weeks before.

After a short rest, the united expedition crossed the Red River and started on their homeward journey in an easterly direction across the Red River flats, and on the 21st of August, 1869, camped for the night on the shores of Floyd Lake, in what is now Detroit Township. The next day being Sunday, the expedition rested from their journeying and the Rev. Dr. Lord held religious services at the camp, and preached the first sermon ever preached in Becker County by a white man of which we have any knowledge.

At this camp at the southwest corner of Floyd Lake, Charles Carleton Coffin wrote a letter to the Boston Journal, giving a description of the country in the western part of Becker County, and appropriately naming it the Park Region of Minnesota.

The following is a copy of his letter:

On our second day's march from Red River, we came to a section of country that might with propriety be called the Park Region of Minnesota. It lies amid the uplands of the divide. It is more beautiful even than the country around White Bear Lake in the vicinity of Glenwood. Throughout the day we rode amid such rural scenery as can only be found in the most lovely spots in New England. Think of an undulating country, gently rounded elevations with green slopes, of lawns and parks and countless lakes; calm waters reposing amid the low hills, skirted by forests, fringed with rushes, perfumed by lilies; or of the waves rippling on gravelly beaches, of wild geese, ducks, loons, pelicans and innumerable waterfowl building their nests amid the reeds and rushes; think of lawns blooming with flowers, of elk and deer browsing amid the meadows. This is their haunt. We see their tracks along the sandy beach, but they keep beyond the range of our rifles.

So wonderfully has nature adorned this section of country, that it seems as if we were riding through a country that had long been under cultivation, and that beyond yonder hillock we shall find a mansion or at least a farm house.

I do not forget that I am seeing this country at its best season, that it is midsummer, and that the winters are as long as in New England; but I can say without reservation that nowhere in the wide world, not even in England, the most finished of all lands; not in la belle France, or sunny Italy, or in the valley of the Ganges, or the Yangtze, or the slopes of the Sierra Nevadas in California have I beheld anything approaching this region of natural beauty.

It was a pleasure, after three days' travel over trackless wilds, to come suddenly and unexpectedly upon a hayfield. There were the swathes newly mown. There was no farm-house in sight, no fenced fields, but the hay-makers had been at work in the vicinity. We were approaching civilization. Ascending the hill we came in sight of a settler, a pioneer. One of our party had already come up with him, and he informed us that we should find the old trail about a mile ahead. He had a long beard hanging to his breast; long, matted hair and a pale wrinkled countenance. He had come from Ohio in his youth and had always been a skirmisher on the advancing line of civilization.

We struck the old trail about a mile west of Oak Lake. This trail was formerly traveled by the French and Indian traders, between the Mississippi River and Pembina, and had not been used much of late years. Striking that, we should have not trouble in reaching the settlements at Otter Tail forty miles southeast.

Emigration travels fast. Four families have just made a beginning at Oak Lake on the old Red River trail. We reached the settlement on Saturday night, August 21st, and pitched our tent on the shore of Floyd Lake for the Sabbath. it was a rare treat for these people to come to our camp and hear a sermon from the Rev. Dr. Lord. The oldest person in the colony is a woman, now in her eightieth year, with eye undiminished, a countenance remarkably free from the marks of age, who walks with a firm step after three-score years of labor. Sixty years ago she left Lebanon, New Hampshire, a young wife, leaving her native hills for a home in the state of New York, then moving with the great army of emigrants to Ohio, Illinois, Missouri and Iowa in succession, and at last beginning again in Minnesota.

Last year her hair, which had been as white as the purest snow, began to take on its original color, and is now quite dark. There are but few instances on record of such a renewal of youth.

The women and children of these four families lived here all alone for six weeks while the men were away after the stock. On the fourth of July all hands traveled forty miles, to Rush Lake to celebrate the day. Store, church, school and post office are forty miles away and the nearest mills are fully as distant."

The four families referred to were the Henry Way, Sherman Sperry and Stillman families, who had settled the year before at Oak Lake.

The settler referred to with the long hair was a half luny individual by name of Talmage, who lived in a little dugout a mile or two southwest of where Audubon now stands. He left the country the next year. He is the man who cut the hay referred to in the letter above.

The expedition then proceeded on its way to the east, the route followed by them being very nearly identical with that now occupied by the Northern Pacific Railroad itself. This expedition settled the location of the Northern Pacific between Duluth and Moorhead, but another expedition was sent out the next year to make a farther examination of the country between he Red River and the Missouri. John O. French was also a member of this expedition, and to him I am indebted for a large part of the information contained in this article.

The Northern Pacific Railroad was just a little more than one year in being built through Becker County. Grading began in the vicinity of the Otter Tail County line and in the Detroit Woods, about the middle of October, 1870, and was finished in the western part of the county about the middle of November, 1871. By the first of December, trains were making regular trips to Oak Lake Cut, which were continued through the winter, but only two trains were run through to Moorhead that fall, as the road was blockaded with snow until the middle of the next April, although a large crew of men shoveled snow all winter at an expense of $30,000.

General Rosser was chief engineer of this part of the railroad. And engineer by the name of Keith had charge of the work from the second crossing of the Otter Tail to Chris. Anderson's place on Section 8, in Audubon Township, and Reno, a relative of Major Reno of Custer Massacre fame, had charge from there to where Hawley, in Clay County, is now. In 1870 and 1871 an engineer by the name of McClellan, a cousin of General McClellan, surveyed a line from Floyd Lake, in Detroit Township to Pembina. Fred. Brackett had the contract of grading the road from the crossing of the Otter Tail River near the county line to Detroit Lake, and George M. C. Brackett graded the road from Detroit Lake a distance of ten miles to the west.

T.M. Ault had a sub-contract for grading a few miles east from Detroit Lake.

An old Scotchman by the name of James McCoy, had a contract for grading, where the village of Lake Park now stands.

The Soo railroad was built across Becker County in the year 1903.